Few San Joaquin Valley cotton producers are as passionate about agriculture as Fred Starrh.
His fervor is so unbridled, it is often misunderstood.
University of California Extension Cotton Specialist Bob Hutmacher says arguing a differing viewpoint than held by the 74-year-old Shafter, Calif., cotton grower “can make you think Fred hates your guts — and then when it all over he says, let's go get a hamburger.”
Starrh chuckled at that description, admitting that he can seem “overbearing” at times, but he makes no apology for his viewpoints or his profession as a San Joaquin Valley cotton farmer for more than a half century.
Starrh admits to more than a few “pretty heated discussions” over the years, but “I would hope that when they were over, we were still friends. Different viewpoints are what make this industry work. It's part of the process.”
Farming is Fred's lifestyle, and he will do whatever he can in any arena to protect and advance a way of life he cherishes.
Fred's father came to the valley in 1936 to grow cotton on a 30-acre cotton farm in Kern County. Fred's oldest son now lives on that farm. Later he partnered with his father and now Fred, his two sons Fred Jr. and Larry, daughters Carol Kroeker and her husband Jay and Ann Ashley farm 12,000 acres as a family partnership, Starrh and Starrh Cotton Growers, on the West Side of Kern County, Calif.
They grow about 6,000 acres of cotton with the rest of the farm in 2,100 acres of alfalfa, 280 acres of pistachios, 1,600 acres of almonds and 30 acres of carrots.
The Starrh family is this year's Farm Press/Cotton Foundation Far West High Cotton Award winner, nominated by their peers for decades of leadership in agriculture, the cotton industry and in production agriculture.
Involvement and the name Starrh are synonymous. It would take pages to list the organizations Fred and his sons have served both in California and nationally.
“I have always been aware of the fact that to have an impact you have to be involved the process,” said Fred.
Time away from a farm for industry involvement could take a toll between the turn rows, but that is not the case for Starrh and Starrh Cotton Growers. They are leaders there as well. That is why the Starrh Family was nominated and selected for this year's High Cotton award for the production region of California and Arizona.
Farming is challenging everywhere today, but no more so than in California where environmental restraints are the most onerous anywhere and resources like water and land are growing more scarce each day in a state of more than 32 million people rapidly on its way to 50 million within the next two decades.
The Starrhs are meeting challenges head on by:
Paving 33 miles of roads on their farm with an oil-sand compound to reduce dust.
Converting older diesel engine pumps to cleaner burning models to reduce pollution.
Installing drip irrigation exclusively for cotton production to reduce water use and to utilize well water as a replacement for increasingly tenuous surface water deliveries.
Utilizing soil moisture sensors to fine tune irrigation scheduling and maximizing water use.
Developing innovative, reduced tillage systems to cover more acreage with fewer passes.
In the High Cotton nomination package, the Starrh family was cited for “the level of commitment to Western cotton production, on-farm accomplishments and environmental stewardship the High Cotton award strives to recognize.
“The Starrhs have established new standards for California from their farming practices and from their leadership roles in California agriculture,” said Bruce Roberts, University of California Cooperative Extension county director in Kings County who led the team which nominated the Starrhs.
The Starrhs have successfully maintained and even increased cotton yields while reducing inputs and meeting environmental standards unlike anywhere in the U.S. This year the Starrhs averaged 3 bales on upland varieties, including the ultra premium Acala from California Planting Cotton Seed Distributors,' Ultima, which is roller ginned and brings a 10 cents per pound premium over other saw-ginned Acalas. Their Pima yields averaged 2.7 bales.
Those yields were achieved using 32 to 34 inches of water. “We grew cotton on the drip-irrigated T-Tape with only 29 inches,” said Fred Sr.
Their other upland varieties were Nova and Sierra from CPCSD. Deltapine 340 and Phytogen 76 were the Pima varieties grown in 2003.
“The newer varieties we have today are more adaptable to less water use than what we used to grow,” said Starrh. Irrigation research has also resulted in ways to reduce water use as well.
“Cotton has gotten a bum rap as a big water user. Trees and many other crops in California use more water than cotton,” said Larry Starrh.
Fred Starrh is one of the most research-committed producers. He has played a key role in reshaping the USDA-ARS research team at the Shafter Research Center and is an unabashed supporter of genetically modified crops. The Starrh farm is a frequent site for UC and federal research projects.